Each dab of the cotton ball diffused eye-watering powder into Nina’s face. Within minutes, pink makeup clouded the wall’s oval mirror. Her beauty tools, previously arranged by use and size, lay in jumbled heaps across her desk. There was one spot on her cheek that needed a dab, but she just couldn’t keep her hand steady. She kept missing, double-dapping her chin, her forehead, her temples.
“Nina, hurry the fuck up. Stage in five.”
Greg, the manager, closed the door to the makeup room with a slam. The rest of the cast had left long ago to rehearse, to smoke, to check the ratings. Nina didn’t want to see the ratings, she’d quit smoking a few seasons ago, and she already knew her lines like the back of her hand. She always did. The others didn’t; they stumbled and ad-libbed their way through the script every episode.
Nina finally dabbed the correct spot. She looked the part now. The grown-up girl next door who worked the ice cream stand and was obviously hiding something. She was a decent pick as the season’s culprit, but deciphering Skipping Rope’s plot was like solving a Rubik’s Cube that reset itself every five seconds.
The door swung open, Greg’s face a red balloon fit to burst. He opened his mouth to curse a storm, but Nina's slender frame was already sliding past him toward the stage.
* * *
“One scoop of mint chocolate chip, one scoop of rocky road, and a million vanilla sprinkles.”
“Wonderful!” Nina wiped her hands on her apron and got to work. The lights, both from the shopping mall set and the auditorium beyond, blazed in her face. As she completed her task, she took extra care to avoid looking at the dozens of cameras around them. “Will that be all?”
Wendell pressed his knuckles onto the counter as he leaned forward, his chin parallel to the register. “Listen, Nina, I’m worried. The cops have been circling the mall more and more. I think they’re going to find out.”
“Find out what?” Nina stood stock still, the ice cream in her hand already melting.
Wendell looked over his shoulder. There was no one in line behind him, but a couple of families were hurrying into a Macy’s to catch the Black Friday sale. That was the episode’s title this week, ‘Black Friday.’ Of course, viewers saved fifty percent on their subscriptions when watching this week, and tickets for the auditorium were on sale, too. All the way down to $3,500 per pop.
Nina avoided Wendell’s gaze as he leaned even further over the counter. It seemed like he might reach out and grab her collar. Hopefully, he would slip and crash into the register. Fake coins would tumble all over the set; maybe a few quarters would even roll to the edge of the stage and fall into the front rows. Anything to get the fans voting for someone else. Nina peeked at a clock near one of the stage lights, out of the audience’s line of sight.
Just three hours left until the votes were tallied.
“Don’t play dumb you stupid bitch.” Wendell’s pale features reddened. He was exceptionally good at that, making his skin tone change on command. Was there a ball he was squeezing or something he was biting down on? Nina hadn’t learned that technique in her school back in Mérida.
Wendell snatched the ice cream and gave it a gargantuan bite. Midway through his next tirade and a brain freeze took hold. He shuddered and backed away across the hall, into the Macy’s — crashing through some fake plants and startling the shop-happy family. Nina giggled along with the viewers as the stage lights darkened to signal an intermission.
Once it was pitch black, Nina threw off her apron and headed for the backstage lounge. Greg tried to grab her by the arm as she exited down a hall. “Hold on Nina. You’ve got to turn it up a notch. You know you have no chance anymore with that puppy dog look. Hike up your dress. Show off those olive legs!” Nina’s manager yelled as she turned a corner and headed for the stairwell.
The lounge was quiet, a stark contrast to the calamitous storm outside Chicago’s Royal Theater Tower. Nina took a seat on a plush couch and stared out the reinforced windows. Wind and hail battered the nigh-indestructible walls before descending to the city streets. It would be Hell for people on the surface today.
“Hey, Nina.” A fellow actor walked up to her, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The fans had done well last offseason, giving Freckly his new nickname. Names were important. They had connotations. ‘Nina’ just made Nina sound like an immigrant.
“Want a light?” Freckly extended a freckled hand with a zebra-spotted lighter in it.
Nina looked down to find a cigarette in her fingers. Strange, she didn’t even remember getting it out of her pocket. Freckly lit Nina’s cigarette and took a seat beside her. They stared out into the swirling, sandy winds, wondering how lush the planet looked fifty years earlier.
The peace they shared was ruined when the rest of the cast entered the lounge. The actors poured themselves drinks at the silver bar and chatted under glass chandeliers. Many had their phones out, the ratings visible in blocky numbers.
Nina peeked at her freckled, fair-headed friend. “Congrats. In two seasons you’ve gone from bottom to top. Literally flipped the script.”
Freckly shook his head. “I don’t know about that. There’s a few more popular than me.”
Nina closed her eyes. She wished she was back in the Yucatan. One more year in school wouldn’t have hurt. She wanted to attend one hundred more seminars on PR because fans didn’t care about raw ability anymore.
“Less than one percent of applicants make it, Nina.” Freckly squeezed her hand. “We should be proud of ourselves.”
Nina whipped her head back and glared at Freckly. “Why are you saying that?”
Freckly raised his hands in submission. “I’m… I’m just saying. In case you were worried.”
“What would I need to be worried about? Huh?” Nina flicked her cigarette into a potted plastic plant before storming out of the lounge.
* * *
The techies for Skipping Rope were almost as accomplished as the actors. They’d gone through an equally cutthroat application process, but it didn’t take guts to pull pulleys and shift lights around. The fans never talked about them. The fans never rated them. All the techies had to do was show up and follow orders and everything would be fine. It was a job robots would take in the next few years. Not actors. A robot didn’t have the soulful imagination required to act. Nina reflected on this as she ran away from the season’s murderer, and tried to convince herself that she’d made the right choice in following her dreams.
Like whack a mole, black stones sprung from the parking lot set to trip her. Nina sidestepped a few, but the techies were on their game. One stone caught her in the shin and she fell and knocked her chin on the gravel. She didn’t need to act anymore. This was really happening — every method actor’s wet dream.
She turned to face him, her palms pressed into the flooded, craggy ground. Her dress kept getting caught on some conveniently placed barbed wire — a trap that had been established in a previous episode. Greg’s hopes were coming true. Nina’s olive legs were now on full display, cut and bloody, but sure to arouse nonetheless.
Nina pulled an ice cream cone out of her purse and pointed it at her assailant. Two thoughts occurred to her as she did this. One: was her character such a manic pixie girl that she’d literally carry ice cream cones on her person as self-defense weapons? And two: who scouted Jason? Because they did a great job. Jason was the perfect perpetrator. He hid in plain sight the whole season, even with a name like Jason. It was such a good ruse that most of the cast hadn’t even figured it out.
“Stay back, you murderer!” Nina squealed as she waved the pointy side of her cone in the air.
Jason crouched and grabbed strands of the barbed wire with his calloused hands. He grinned at the pricking pain. “Oh, I’m no murderer, Nina. Ask the Coolidge Bugle tomorrow, or the Valley Journal. Oh wait, you won't be around to.” On cue, a streak of light flashed across the ceiling and sprinklers poured down bucketfuls. As Jason lunged, Nina stabbed him in the bicep with her ice cream cone. The murderer cackled in tune with the simulated lightning strikes. Actual blood oozed from his wound, though. No more ketchup, no more corn syrup.
“I’ve waited a long time for this.” Jason pulled the cone out and chowed down, his own blood streaming down his chin. He raised the barbed wire, a season’s worth of pent-up frustration in his blue eyes. Nina dropped to her back in submission, realizing all at once how horrible and lucky she was. She really was following in Daniel Day Lewis’ footsteps — the God of method acting and showbiz, the foundation of the Skipping Rope troupe.
Memories of raising her hand in school, of deep-dish pizza, of open calls, of signatures on colorful pieces of paper, all flooded Nina’s mind as the false rain pounded her body.
“Wha… what?” Jason whimpered as the sounds of thunder increased in volume. Only Nina could hear him now. Only she could see the subtle electric shocks in his legs; the techies used currents in the ground to keep him frozen in place. Jason’s soaked black hair covered his eyes, but Nina could still see the fear smitten across his face — in his twitching mouth, in his sunken cheeks.
Wendell rushed from the darkness backstage, onto the set, and stabbed Jason through the chest with a flagpole. The season’s culprit died instantly, and Nina, covered in blood, fainted as Wendell rushed to her side.
* * *
What an episode! I never saw that coming. I didn’t realize so many people were polling for Jason.
It was in the last hour or so. Blinked and you missed it. My money was on Nina… I wish it was her. That bitch acts way too hard. It’s so obvious she’s just repeating the script. No flair at all.
Fucking accent too is distracting as fuck.
Why on Earth did people pick Jason? Was it because he dropped the fruit bowl in episode 6? It was awkward, but I guess it could have been staged.
Fuck that, dropping that fruit bowl ruined episode 6, maybe the whole fucking season if you ask me. The fruit looked so plastic and fake and come on, would a serial killer really waste time helping waiters pick shit off the ground?
Jason beat out Nina by 5% and I know the reason. Casual fans were too confused when Jason turned out to be the killer instead of Freckly, so they all switched off Nina at the last second. This show has really dropped off man…
* * *
Greg closed his laptop and lit up a cigarette. He was conflicted about the day’s events. On one hand, the hardest work was behind him. There would be a simple finale next week, to sum up the season’s events and give everyone their proper send-offs. With any luck, the last stinger kill would be someone like Nina or Stacey. Stacey, in particular, was really getting on Greg’s nerves with all that incessant praying. The manager closed his eyes, smoke filling his office as he huffed and puffed.
On the other hand, ratings were at an all-time low. He’d done a good job keeping the cast in the dark; if word got out, it could ruin Skipping Rope for good. Applications only came in because people believed this was the be-all and end-all of showbiz, of acting, of stage and television performance. As far as the showrunners were concerned, it was, but Greg was less sure. Virtual reality was really growing in strength, and those clunky helmets were increasingly a thing of the past. Now, VR was as easy as sticking sensory buds to your temples. Greg even had a pair in his desk drawer.
A knock on the door soured the manager’s mood. He wanted to take a nap.
The sight of Wendell entering the room evoked fond memories for the manager. The tall, stone-faced twenty-five-year-old wasn’t like those other rich kids Greg had interviewed in Toronto. He’d grown up on the streets; this life was real to him. The fictional town of Coolidge, dark and full of secrets, was a circus compared to his upbringing. Wendell fit the part of the suave but off-putting rat so well that Greg himself had the kid furtively running errands backstage.
“Everything cleaned up?” Greg slid a pack of smokes across his desk.
Wendell seated himself and lit up before answering. “Yeah, but the techies are complaining about wages again. There’s talk of strikes.”
Greg scowled. Reagan’s union-busting work was almost a hundred years old but in serious need of a reboot. “I’ll have a word with the showrunners. It’s all too delicate. If the techies walk out again, we’ll have to postpone.”
“We aren’t that useless.” Wendell crossed his arms. “If you give us some pointers, we might manage. You can just scrap the funeral scenes and make the finale more personal. Some scenes at a cafe or something.”
Greg cursed to the moon and back. “What, and just repeat season eighteen’s ending? We’re about evolution here, kid. You’ve seen the forums. They comb over every frame. It all has to be new.”
Wendell shrugged. “I’m just making suggestions. Is everything alright? You wouldn’t be like this unless there was a problem.”
“A problem? Yes, there’s a fucking problem. The problem is I hired a bunch of losers. Take you, for example. Have you ever seen an episode of Breaking Bad? Survivor? Oh wait, you’ve never had a TV. One you didn’t steal, anyway. What’s your highest level of education? It’s as tall as my boot, which is about to be jutting out of your asshole.”
Greg smushed the bud of his cigarette into a glass ashtray and took a deep breath.
“Did you grab the evaluations?”
“Yes.” Wendell pulled a manilla folder out from the inside of his green coat and tossed it to Greg’s side of the desk. “The doc went on about how unethical it is for you to be looking at them, but a few bills silenced that talk.”
“Well done.” Greg opened the folder and combed over the evals one by one. Freckly had been a statistician in college who’d joined the theater program later than most. He believed he could out-think Skipping Rope’s system and stay alive long enough to retire richer than rich. Nina’s report was her usual jargon. The Doc noted that her mood swings were a problem, and that medication was advised to keep her comfortable.
“Special care should be taken with Madison, Stacey and Erik,” Greg read out loud. “These three scored far below acceptable numbers and are psychologically unstable. They may become scared or dangerous enough to sabotage Skipping Rope. Medication or further incentives are advised.”
Wendell nodded. “They all seemed pretty upset when Jason was cremated. I looked through their fan mail. Erik and Madison are getting letters from their parents saying the money and fame aren’t worth it.” Wendell procured a comb from his coat and got to work on his bangs. “Why don’t you fire them? I’m sure there are plenty of good actors you could find.”
Greg didn’t respond. He was too busy reading the last eval — an absolute bashing of Wendell’s psyche. The Doc went into detail on how Wendell had expressed narcissistic tendencies and a lack of remorse for others in their meeting. Wendell thinks of others as cattle in a slaughterhouse. He doesn’t believe he’s destined for greatness, but that he is greatness personified. The trials and tribulations of his youth were nothing but a test to see if he was ready to claim the world. In a live show that follows madmen and madwomen every season, Wendell has shown that he, in reality, is the maddest of all.
“Huh, new actors?” Greg cleared his throat and stacked the evals. “No Wendell, it’s not as simple as just hiring new actors. I made the process easy for you, but for most people, it takes months or even years to prep for the show. We have to be absolutely sure that it’s what they want — that they’re willing to gamble their lives for the ultimate glory in showbiz. There’s no room in the world anymore for ten minutes of fame. You can’t make a video and go viral anymore. No one cares about the small stuff. You have to give people nightmares. With VR, everyone can do whatever anyone else does. Everyone can cross light sabers with Darth Vader or climb Mount Everest, all from the comfort of their living room. But you know what they can’t do? They can’t die. That’s why we’re real. It’s not just acting, it’s cold reality. We blur the line to near incomprehensibility. So no, Wendell, I can’t just hire new actors. We filtered Stacey and Madison through ten thousand applicants. I need to make them work at all costs.”
Greg felt his heart skip a beat. It was subtle at first, just a skip of the rope, but then panic started to take hold. His body felt like it was on fire. He closed his eyes and took another deep breath. “Wendell. Get the evals faxed to the showrunners right away.”
“You sure you’re alright?” Wendell stood up and grabbed the manilla folder.
“Just fuck off and fax these, will ya?” When Wendell was gone, Greg popped a handful of pills into his mouth and washed them down with a glass of scotch. His much-needed nap came moments later as he laid his head down on his hardwood desk.
* * *
So pumped for the finale!
Should be an absolute blast. Still shaking a bit from Jason’s death, though. I thought he was going to kill Nina and make a getaway. Maybe come back for another season or retire.
Poll results are in! 36.7% of fans appreciate that the characters share their actors’ names. It adds to the whole aesthetic of the show. 15.9% of fans said they dislike it since it can make differentiating the twenty-six seasons more tricky for returning actors…
Enough of that. Everyone agrees the actors should cycle through names more often and use their last names or middle names or nicknames on occasion. That way it’s less confusing from season to season. Let’s get to the good stuff. I have here with me Mrs. Balanko, the late Jason’s mother. She hails all the way from the Oceanic Republic. We’re glad to have you on the show Mrs. Balanko!
Thanks for having me.
I think we’ll start by asking the most obvious question… how are you holding up? Every episode’s death is equal parts tragedy and beauty. Jason’s will go down in history for being such a blindside to the audience and for his awesomely gory finish. Is your family doing alright?
Yes, we’re doing fine, thank you. Although Jason’s passing saddens me, as the death of any son will sadden any mother, I must thank him for his contribution to his family. Growing up in pre-republic Burma was hard, and Jason always dedicated himself to caring for his brothers and sisters. He’s doing that even in death, and we can’t wait to see him in the afterlife one day and thank him.
It is a great service to the world that the brilliant and daring actors of Skipping Rope provide. How has your family benefited from Jason’s deeds?
Everywhere we go, people want our autographs. It’s like we’re extensions of Jason ourselves. My husband has had the easiest of times getting his glass-making business up and going, and all the kids are having a wonderful time in school. Best of all, fans send us stuff every day. Flowers and presents… it makes me tear up every time.
Well, that is just wonderful, Mrs. Balanko. Tell me, do any of your other children have similar aspirations to their late brother?
Yes! My youngest, Celine, has already started acting lessons…
* * *
Freckly checked to see if anyone was watching before he switched the channel. There was a NASCAR race he’d bet his last paycheck on. Everyone else in the lounge was minding their own business anyway, tending to their phones, their nails, their scripts. It had been five days since episode nine and there was a certain level of serenity in the air. Just one episode to go until vacation.
A few side characters were in the corner by the vending machines. They acted out their scenes in hushed voices, oblivious to the danger they were in. They were too fresh-faced to understand. Surely it wouldn’t be them. It would be literally anyone but them. That’s what their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, teachers, friends and priests had told them. Just stick it out as a meager side character for a few seasons. Wait for your moment, and then improvise — turn a disregarded scene into an emotional masterpiece.
They were right. It wouldn’t be them in the finale. Side characters always died at the beginning of the season. But what they didn’t understand was the odds. There were seventy named characters this season. One named character died every episode, so that was a six out of seven chance of surviving the season. But if they returned, they’d have the same odds, if not higher, for being a more important member of the cast.
Freckly shifted himself on the couch and looked over his shoulder. The only actor who’d survived and stayed on Skipping Rope since the first season was playing pool with a few other veterans. Despite his age, Marcus Higgins had to be the physically strongest cast member. Last training camp, Freckly had watched the man run one hundred meters in twelve seconds and bench press two hundred and fifty pounds.
“I see you scoping the scene, Freckly.” Higgins chuckled and waved over to the couches. “If you’ve been practicing, then I’m sure the odds have gone up. Wanna give it a go?”
Freckly flipped off Higgins and the other pool players. It was tempting, but every dime counted these days. He had it all planned out. Mess up too many bets and his house of cards would come tumbling down.
Higgins hit a ricochet shot to sink the striped four-ball. His hair was a dusty white, but still full and attractive. Freckly bit his lip. People didn’t understand this game any more than they did pool. Joining Skipping Rope wasn’t about making history, it was about getting filthy rich. People wanted to be like Higgins, and they’d all die trying.
Wendell entered the lounge, walked right up to Higgins and whispered something into the veteran’s ear. A crashing sound from the television snatched Freckly’s attention before he could investigate the situation at the pool table further. He turned to find that his racing car had smashed through a metal fence. Commentators gasped as first responders rushed in to hose down the wreckage, and Freckly groaned as the driver’s limp body was carried off on a stretcher. This shrunk his margin of error even further. He muted the TV before recoiling at the touch of hands on his shoulders.
“Trouble in paradise?” Madison climbed over the couch and sat herself down beside him.
Freckly checked to make sure no one was ogling before leaning in for a kiss. “You look so good. You seemed pretty beat up after last episode. Are you worried about tonight?”
Madison wasn’t looking at Freckly, she was looking through him. Her eyes had a hazy quality to them, like the winds that battered the tower day and night.
“I’m doing just fine, Freckly.” Madison turned her head to the TV. “What a shame about your driver. I’m sure you’ll get them next time.”
Freckly grabbed Madison’s hand. It was ice cold. He pressed his fingers to her wrist — her pulse was barely perceptible.
“Gosh Maddy, you’re not…?”
Madison turned back to him with a big smile. “What’s the matter?” She retrieved a small calculator from her purse. “Hey, I’ve been doing some calculations.” A globule of drool dripped from her mouth. “Are you sure your math is right? I think you need to stick around one more season for it to work out. I don’t think you’ll have enough to get that penthouse in Paris.”
Freckly looked over the equation in Madison’s calculator. He pointed to the figure representing his wages. “You missed a zero, Maddy. I’m sorry, but even with this,” he gestured to the television, “I’ll still have enough to make ends meet after Friday. I’ll be able to buy my dad a new place as well.”
Madison shook her head. “But… but you’re always in the Vegas towers. You might slip up and lose big. Remember what happened at Berkeley? You might start betting things you don’t have again.”
“Shh.” Freckly squeezed Madison’s hands. “How much did the Doc give you?” He shook her a bit. “How much, dammit!?”
Madison was drooling like a dog now. “Come to bed with me, right here. It’s only two days till the episode. What are we waiting for, Benjamin? What have we been hiding for?” Her smile faded as she got on top of Freckly and pushed him down into the couch. “Ask me to marry you, Ben. Ask me. Why haven’t you? You never have. I’m the one who told you to give acting a go. I knew you had the stuff. And now I’m going to die. We both know it. Ask me already.”
Freckly tossed Madison off and ran out of the lounge, his hands shaking.
Madison lay on the couch, staring up at the swaying chandeliers. One of them could descend and cut the torment short. The glass would pierce through her open mouth, into the cushions. The dangling crystals would adorn her body like treasures in a pharaoh's tomb.
* * *
Lieutenant Higgins rapped his knuckles on the metal table. The interrogation room was frigid. So frigid that his quarry was shivering like she had hypothermia. It was a tactic Higgins had learned firsthand at a police seminar in the offseason. He grinned. Chicago PD loves me so much, I might as well have a badge.
“Do you know why he did it?”
Nina shook her head.
“Good, because I do. I’ll tell you all about it.” Lieutenant Higgins stood up and folded his hands behind his back. He stared through the room’s one-way glass at the audience. It was an excellent trick. The audience really felt like they were on the other side of the glass, in the observation room. They really felt like they were a part of the investigation. The glass wasn’t actually one way, of course, but the audience didn’t need to know that.
Higgins snapped his fingers at a cadet leaning on the wall. “What the fuck are you doing, standing there? Get us some coffee.” He peered up at a camera in the interrogation room. To the audience, it would appear like he was communicating with whoever was on the other side of the cameras with his facial expressions. In reality, his lines were in that camera lens, and he was having a damned time remembering them. His head was still splitting after his little celebration fiesta with Wendell and Greg the previous night. They’d managed to convince the techies to stick around for the last episode, and some of the dough was coming out of Higgins’ own bank account.
He smiled and turned back to Nina. The techies could have charged him double. Just drops in the bucket, as far as he was concerned. They didn’t realize what this troupe meant to him. What it meant to the people of Mother Earth.
“Jason liked to fuck dead bodies, Nina. It fascinated him. It perplexed him.”
Nina buried her head in her arms.
“Your skin, dusty and bloodied,” Higgins continued. “Wet, still, from laying in the rain for hours while he moved and undressed you.” He banged his fist on the table, eliciting a yelp from his subject. “You might not have known why he was doing it, Nina, but you knew he was up to something. You impeded my investigation again and again. Why?”
The cadet walked in, placed the coffee down and immediately fucked off when he received even the briefest glance from Higgins.
“You covered the cameras in the mall with ice cream. Who the Hell does that?” Higgins took off his coat. Even at fifty-five years of age, he was no one to fuck with. Fans of Skipping Rope saw that every season, and in his offseason workout videos as well. He was making almost as much money from that endeavor these days. The opposite trajectory of Schwarzenegger.
“You stuck brooms in the doors to lock them. You left the cash register unlocked for him. You’re an accomplice, Nina. An accomplice to murder and necrophilia.”
“No no no,” Nina mumbled between sobs. Higgins loomed over her now, his pectorals almost bursting through his collared shirt. He nudged Nina’s coffee over to her and sipped at his own.
“You can tell so much about someone’s character based on how they take their coffee.” Higgins opened the lid on his styrofoam cup and showed it to Nina, the audience, and the cameras.
Gotta improvise a bit before the fans start calling me senile.
“Black. No milk, no sugar, no added bullshit. Nothing to contaminate my duty to this town. He tried to murder you, Nina. You knew each other for years. Probably gave each other handies under the school balconies, huh?”
Nina raised an eyebrow as if to say, ‘Higgins, the fuck?’ But she got back into character immediately and continued sobbing.
The cadet bolted through the door. “Sir, the court’s been vandalized.”
Higgins shrugged. “Then grab someone and go check it out. I’m busy here.”
The cadet shook his head. “The perps spray painted ‘Skipping Rope’ all over the walls.”
Before the cadet could say more, Higgins already had Nina by the arm and was barrelling his way out of the interrogation room. As the audience held their breath, the stage lights dimmed until the metal table was the only object illuminated. Then, after a few more moments, everything was black.
* * *
Stacey finished lighting two candles and placed them down by her knees. A stained glass depiction of Mary and baby Jesus watched over her bowed head. After a few moments, Stacey sighed and rubbed the crust out of her eyes. It was difficult to concentrate in this blasphemous space. The worshiping chamber was tiny, and several floors away from the stage. Every religion, old and new, seemed to be represented here. Stacey wondered if the show-running cretins had been sent by Beelzebub himself to mess with her. Lord have mercy, there was even a fucking painting of Zeus holding a lightning bolt next to Mary and Jesus!
God had nothing to say. He looked down upon his subject with blank eyes. He trusted her to make the right choice. That’s why he maintained his silence.
One candle blew out and Stacey gasped. Was this God finally speaking to her, or was it simply a draft of wind that had passed through cracks in the unbreakable walls?
Coincidences didn’t exist in the mind of the devout. Stacey nodded to herself. She’d endure this show for one more season. Since she’d been hired, thirty new churches had been built in lower-income towers in America. Depending on the need, these places held food runs, medical clinics, even magic shows to attract younger converts.
Stacey’s face, creased from years of humbled frowns, allowed itself a grin. Only six months until martyrdom, then. Perhaps she’d even be rewarded with sainthood upon her death. She envisioned white-clad choirs on balconies chanting her name with new hymns. Glass portraits of her visage in Vatican halls. Mothers would make an offering to her before bed. Fathers would donate to charities, hoping the new saint would bless them with everlasting vitality.
Stacey scowled and bowed her head all the way to the floor so that her forehead was touching the polished wood. I can’t be vain. This is for the people.
The chamber’s mahogany doors opened with loud creaks and we’re followed by a squeaky voice. “I’ve told you already, it’s not real.”
Stacey whipped her head around and stared daggers at Erik. The yellow-haired actor was even more twitchy than usual today. “Did you actually take the stuff the doc gave you? I know you’re dumb, Erik, but I never thought you were that dumb.”
Erik shook his head. His malnourished frame stumbled past incense and statuettes. He played the part of the vagrant well. So well, in fact, that Stacey had long since condemned him as an extreme sinner. He was a glutton, but not in the way people traditionally defined the word. Gluttony didn’t mean being fat, it just referred to overconsumption and a lack of inhibition. Erik had to be a glutton for drugs, there was no other explanation for his appearance and no faster way to the bowels of Hell.
“Please, Erik,” Stacey pleaded. “It’s not too late to save your soul. Kneel beside me.” She brushed a strand of auburn hair from her eyes and patted a spot beside her.
Erik shook his head. “Jesus is thousands of years old, Stacey. He can’t help you. The way I think of it, if someone’s worth worshiping, it’s someone who’s walked in our shoes.”
Stacey sighed. Here we go again.
“Daniel Day-Lewis is God, Stacey. Thomas the Train can be God for train conductors. Michael Jordan can be God for basketball players, but our God should be the greatest actor who’s ever lived. The first actor to give their life for our troupe.”
Stacey rolled her eyes and turned back to Mary and Jesus. “I’m not having this conversation with you again, Erik.”
“Listen to me, dammit!” Erik wasn’t empty-handed. He’d brought a picture and some tools. As Stacey recited biblical text to stay composed, Erik hammered a picture of Daniel Day-Lewis onto the wall right beside Zeus and Jesus.
“There, that’s more like it.” Erik stared at the picture and then turned to Stacey, unsure of how he should commence his worship. Eventually, he cleared his throat and started reenacting some of Daniel Day Lewis' greatest hits.
“What’s the nature of my game?” He said as Stacey murmured passage Romans 12:2 from the Bible.
“You’re just… afterbirth, Stacey. Slithered out of Jesus’ filth. They should have put you in a glass jar, on a mantlepiece.” Erik jumped up in glee. “Maybe that’s how you can die today! Common Stacey, I know you’ve been itching to go to Heaven. Step up for the rest of us.”
“Ok, that’s enough.” Stacey stood up and shoved Erik against the wall. “You know what? I hope it’s you today, Erik. You and your kind… what are you guys called again?”
“Daywalkers and Jesus, Stacey, no need to get physical.”
Stacey pointed a shrewd finger at Erik. “Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain.”
Erik’s phone lit up in his pocket and Stacey’s blood boiled over. It was one thing to praise false deities but to interrupt the chamber’s sacred energy with sophisticated technology, that was going too far. Just as Stacey clenched her hands into fists, praying to God for forgiveness as she reared back to uppercut Erik, he held his phone screen right up to her face. She gasped, whipped out her own phone to confirm the news, and then ran out of the chamber, hand in hand with the Daywalker.
* * *
Wendell watched his lucky coin fall back into his palm. He was playing a game, trying to flip the coin as high as he could without having it touch the ceiling. Each time, he’d close his eyes and count the seconds until the coin returned to his palm.
A crowd of about thirty had gathered in the lounge to watch Madison’s breakdown. They looked on with bloodshot, unsympathetic eyes, hopeful that this explosion of emotion would spell the end for the young actress.
“I can’t do it anymore… I can’t look at this shit anymore.” Madison held up her phone for Greg to see. “They’re not even making sense. I haven’t messed up any cues. My lines are always on time and… what’s this? I’m too stiff?”
A pool of sweat had gathered at the manager’s feet. Of all the times something could go wrong, this was the worst. Few in the room knew how dire the situation was. If they didn’t nail the ending scenes of this season, the curtains might close forever on Skipping Rope.
Wendell narrowed his eyes. Greg didn’t have the stuff to fix this. Wendell wanted that managerial position, and he’d have it. He just needed to stick it out a few more years until one of two outcomes occurred: Greg retired and handed him the keys, or Wendell found enough dirt on the manager to upend him.
Greg pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket. “Do you remember signing this, Madison?”
The skinny platinum blonde backpedaled towards the lounge’s main door. “No.”
Greg unfolded the paper and pointed to Madison’s wavy signature. “Well, you did. You agreed to the terms of this page, and that means you’re a member of this cast until the end of this season or until your character has been eliminated. We can discuss resignation tonight, after the episode’s conclusion.”
Madison dashed from actor to actor in the lounge, grabbing hands, shaking shoulders. “It’s not our characters who die, it’s us. Can’t you all see that? It’s insane what we’re doing!”
“Insane?” The crowd parted as Higgins placed his martini down on the pool table and approached Madison. He ran a hand through his hair and analyzed the actress with the eyes of a true cop. Wendell snickered. Life imitating art imitating life.
“Just because your ratings are tanking doesn’t mean you get to sabotage this troupe. We’ve given people something to look forward to every night for thirteen years. We’ve mastered the art of showbiz. Don’t you think that’s worth dying for? Don’t you want your name to go down in history?” Higgins squeezed Greg’s shoulder in an effort to calm the pudgy manager’s nerves. Then he turned his eyes back to the trembling actress.
“What will you do if you leave here, Maddy? What awaits you out there? Are you going to sell your body on the streets or, better yet, to some VR cam show? You’re an actress, Madison. We’re a team, a cohesive unit.” Higgins lunged forward with incredible speed and caught Madison’s arms. “Long story short, don’t be a cunt! Fix your hair and get your ass on stage!”
“I… I can’t!” Madison was wiry enough to squirm her way out of Higgins’ iron grip. A look of bewilderment crossed his features as Madison barrelled through actors twice her size towards the exit.
Wendell waited until he received a scowl from Greg and then leaped into action. Just as Madison reached the door, Wendell wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her back into the center of the lounge.
Deserters failed to realize how contractual this job was. Back in Toronto, all it took was a handshake to signify that a task would be completed, no questions asked. Pussying out meant death. Of course it did. The people running the show couldn’t let deserters go scot-free. What kind of message would that send to the rest of the flock?
Amazing. Wendell thought as he wrestled Madison to the couches. It’s really like Greg’s grooming me for command. I bet the bastard doesn’t even realize it.
Higgins came to Wendell’s aid and held down Madison’s bone-skinny legs.
“It’s not over till it’s over Madison,” the veteran whispered softly. “Look at me. You don’t think I’ve been down in the dumps before? I’ve been doing this for twenty-six seasons. We didn’t even know what would happen the first episode. We all laughed at the contract, but when it happened. When Daniel…” Higgins shuddered and smiled at the same time. “I knew then and there that I was a part of something special. Whatever happens tonight, Maddy, you’re a special girl. You’re special to the fans, you’re special to your family. Goddammit, you’re special to me.”
Wendell heard the door burst open and spotted Stacey and Erik hovering above the couch a moment later. Greg flanked them as well, waving his hands around at the crowd like he was directing traffic.
“Fetch the doc,” the manager told Erik. “We’re going to need something serious.” He checked his silver watch. “We’re on stage in eight minutes. Everybody, make sure you’re ready. There’s no time to rehearse anymore, so just check yourself in a mirror before going out there to make sure you look the part.”
Stacey crept up beside Higgins. She mouthed prayers, tears streaming down her face to slaughter her make-up.
Madison locked eyes with her fellow actress. “Help me.” But when her friend was unresponsive, Madison resumed her struggle. Wendell grit his teeth as she spit in his face. She kicked her legs out, she heaved her chest, she bit at any limb that came within reach of her mouth. The crowd disregarded their manager and craned their necks over the couches to watch the proceedings.
Stacey hurried out of the way as the Doc came up beside Wendell. “Oh, dear. Yes, this is going to take something new. Evidently, she’s built up a tolerance to my usual material.”
The Doc procured a syringe and tapped its tip. “The strongest inhibitor I’ve made yet. She won’t feel fear anymore.”
“Side effects?” Greg asked solemnly as he stared down at Madison’s writhing body.
The Doc pushed his spectacles up his nose. “I’m not certain, but if she lives through the night, she might wake up tomorrow to find the effect permanent.”
Greg sighed as the Doc stuck the needle deep into Madison’s leg. “Let’s hope for her sake then that the ratings don’t change.”
* * *
Excited for the season to be over honestly. Might be my least favorite.
Really? The sets weren’t great this time around, but I liked the acting. Everyone seems so on edge!
I’m going to be on that stage one day, just you wait…
Bringing up the polls now. Looks like Madison is leading the charge with 41% of the current vote. I think she polls really badly in East Asia too after her kimono get-up last season. Should be bedtime for a lot of them now I reckon, so they’ll watch the recording in the morning. If that’s the case, she might just survive the night.
* * *
Wendell was still panting from his scuffle with Madison when he stepped into the courtroom. He kept to the shadows, waiting for his cue. The auditorium quieted down as the scene began and some extras playing cops analyzed the scene.
Someone had vandalized the courtroom in epic fashion. The benches looked like a wrecking ball had barrelled through them. On the walls, stick-figure girls with pigtails danced over ropes in dripping graffiti. A giant smiley face was plastered on the judge’s podium. Madison, caked in make-up Wendell had smudged on her face last second, was playing the part of the valley’s veteran judge. She looked half asleep in her chair, gavel in hand, the smiley face under her.
Higgins pulled Nina by the arm as he entered the scene from stage left. He pointed to the walls and cursed at the ice cream shop employee in his grip. “What aren’t you telling me, Nina? If the Sons of The Rope are back, then this is bigger than Jason’s killing spree. Time to choose. You can stay silent and condemn this valley to more bloodshed, or you can tell me what you know. You can help end this decade of madness.”
Wendell took his lucky coin out and flipped it. He closed his eyes and slunk further into his corner as the courtroom’s windows shattered from a hail of stones. The doors burst open, and a dozen hooligans in hoodies barged in. They had Stacey and Freckly as hostages, baseball bats pressed to their throats, ropes tying their hands behind their backs.
At the front of the group, Erik removed his hood. “You fucking idiots. We got you all right where we want you.” He pointed his baseball bat at Higgins. “Throw your guns out the windows.”
Higgins nodded to his fellow cops and they did as they were told. Madison descended from her podium and opened her mouth. Instead of lines, however, drool came out. Higgins elbowed the actress in the gut. A few murmurs echoed through the auditorium until Higgins stepped forward and took on Madison’s lines as his own.
“We should have guessed it was you, Erik. I’m sorry, but what happened to those girls was a lifetime ago. You and your crew should have stayed defunct.”
“Maybe a lifetime for you, but not for me.” Erik spat on the ground and motioned to his colleagues. They stepped over broken pieces of wood, canisters in hand, dousing everything in gasoline.
“It was your fault, Higgins. You let unimaginable things happen to those girls.” Erik smashed one of the few intact benches with his bat. He screamed as he utterly destroyed the inanimate prop until it was nothing but dust wafting into the wide-eyed crowd.
“They were our sisters! They were just children, and your partner killed them and fucked them right in Coolidge Central Park! He put it on the internet! Do you have any idea what that did to my family? What that did to the people of this valley?”
“That was ten years ago!” Higgins’ chest heaved as he spat out his lines. He reached for the Heavens. “I’ve asked for forgiveness every day for letting that man into the force. But it wasn’t our fault. Lewis was a true sociopath. He faked his way through all the screenings. There was no way to know.” Higgins ran a trembling hand through his hair and pointed at Freckly and Stacey. “What are you doing with them? They’ve been through enough already.”
“Use that world-famous intuition of yours, lieutenant. Just like you used it to suss out your partner.” Erik cracked his neck and bounced on his toes like a boxer. “These two valedictorians? We’re going to use them to send a message. Tell them, ice cream girl. There’s nothing to hide anymore.”
Nina winced. “Those two…” she pointed to Freckly and Stacey. “They falsified Jason’s grades, wrote up fake parking tickets. They’re the reason he had to come to this court… they stopped him from getting into Harvard. I knew there was something wrong with him, deep down, but it may have never come up if they let him be their equal.”
Erik turned and spat in Freckly and Stacey’s faces. “The poor and unworthy have no place in your world, huh? The people need to rise up, no matter the cost. That’s why Jason did what he did. The greater good. If people can feel what I have felt, what we have felt,” Erik gestured to his comrades, all of them the siblings of murdered victims from the show’s twenty-six season-long history, “then they’ll rise up against our true oppressors. Against the people who created a world for us to run around like chickens with our heads cut off, while the gluttons and rich laugh and watch.” Erik pointed at Higgins. “While your PD laugh and watch!”
Higgins unhooked his baton from his belt and tapped it against the ground. His fellow cops followed his lead. “Jason did what he did because he liked it. Nothing more, nothing less. You’re right. The Skipping Rope murders were my fault. But after tonight, no one will ever call the Coolidge PD incompetent again.”
Wendell rolled his coin along the floor. The cast watched with confused eyes as the coin reached Higgins’ feet and fell to one side, face up.
“So be it.” Wendell tossed a cigarette onto the gasoline, and the whole courtroom went up in flames. While the police battled the Sons of The Rope, Wendell raced forward to free Stacey and Freckly from their restraints. He succeeded just as Higgins bested Erik and used his baton to choke him to death. The techies kept Erik’s feet frozen to the ground, his eyes bulging and his tongue slumped out of his mouth.
The officers rounded up the remaining Sons and put them in handcuffs. The camera was zooming in on Higgins’ war-torn face, signaling the end of the season and the series arc, when a gunshot rang throughout the venue. There was a moment of silence until the auditorium erupted into chaos. Hundreds of fans cheered, and hundreds lept from their seats and dashed for the exits. The techies shouted at each other in confusion, unsure if the scene was over, unsure if they should put the fire out.
Higgins' jaw dropped, and he pushed Erik’s limp body into the fire. The rest of the cast froze in place and stared at Wendell with horrified eyes. The flames lapped closer and closer to their feet, but they just kept staring.
Wendell blew the smoke off his gun’s barrel and pocketed the firearm. Directly in front of him, Freckly’s knees buckled, and then the actor dropped like a sack of thick potatoes. He lay on top of the ropes he’d just been freed from, blood oozing out of his cranium and sizzling in the flames. Wendell winked at the cops. This improv stuff was fun. Maybe he’d try it again next season. And then he was off, sprinting through the flames and jumping out of a courtroom window.
* * *
“We did it, guys! We saved the show!”
Wendell smiled as Greg waved his phone in the air. “The ratings are higher than ever,” the manager stated as he live-streamed to fans. He ran around, showing the confused and distraught expressions of his cast, then turned to the shrugging and laughing techies. “My God, we set a new record! Lewis, Jesus, they’re all proud, guys. They’re sharing drinks in Heaven, looking down on us.” He turned the phone to highlight his tearful face. “I couldn’t be more proud. And to you, the fans, thank you so much. We couldn’t do it without you.”
Propped up against a storage crate, Nina wailed as she held Freckly’s burnt body in her arms. Her own hands had been scoured beyond repair when she dove into the flames to retrieve the body. “That wasn’t a part of the script.” She peered at Wendell, avoiding his eyes. “What did you do, Wendell? What have you done?”
Wendell winked at the camera as Greg shoved his phone in his face. “Evolution,” Wendell told the fans, before bowing his head for global applause.
“They’ve already raised ten thousand dollars…” Stacey said as she looked at her phone. “It hasn’t even been five minutes yet.”
Wendell knelt beside Nina and admired his handiwork. He peeked into the awesome hole in Freckly’s head. Two onstage kills in two episodes, just one short of Higgins’ record.
I’ll beat him next season.
Madison shambled by until Nina called for her attention. “Look, Maddy. Look what they’ve done to Freckly.”
Madison turned and studied Nina and Freckly with glossy eyes. She was humming a song to herself. After a moment, she turned away to continue her ambling and started humming a new tune.
Higgins snatched Greg’s phone and smashed it against the wall. “What did you do? What did the showrunners do?”
Greg snickered. “Oh, they had no part. Wendell and I took a gamble and it saved the show. Two deaths for the price of one episode. We’ll have to double the size of the auditorium for next season.” He addressed his employees with open arms. “We’re still the face of entertainment, everyone! I can’t wait to see you all back for Skipping Rope’s twenty-seventh season!”